In Season: Champagne

The complete guide to choosing, storing, opening―even cooking with―the bubbly stuff.

Champagne

Becky Luigart-Stayner

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All About: Champagne was first created by a 17th century monk by the name of Dom Perignon. Upon tasting it for the first time, he reportedly exclaimed, "Oh, come quickly, I am drinking stars!" To keep his invention from exploding (he was only mildly successful in this endeavor), Perignon used wine bottles that were thicker than the norm, and tied the corks down with string.

What it is: This heady beverage is actually a sparkling blend of red and white wines. True champagne comes only from the Champagne region of northeast France, where the usual grape combination is Chardonnay with either pinot noir or pinot blanc. Champagne-lookalikes from Italy are called spumante, while German versions are called Sekt, and those from such places as the U.S. are simply called sparkling wines.

What it looks like: These bubbly concoctions range in color from the palest gold to a rich apricot blush.
What it tastes like: Champagnes range in flavor from yeasty to toasty, and from dry to sweet. The label will tell you the level of sweetness.

Here's a quick guide to make your selection easier:

  • Brut: extremely dry (less than 1.5% sugar)
  • Extra sec or extra dry: dry (1.2-2.0% sugar)
  • Sec: slightly sweet (1.7-3.5% sugar)
  • Demi-sec: sweet (3.3-5.0% sugar); dessert wine
  • Doux: very sweet (over 5.0% sugar); dessert wine

Why it's so expensive: The best champagnes not only come from premium grapes, but they're also made by a complex traditional method called methode champenoise, in which the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle.

Storage tips: This New Year's favorite should never be stored more than a couple of hours in the refrigerator, as excess chill will dull both the flavor and the bouquet. (This goes for other white wines as well.) Instead, store it in a cool, dry place.

Serving tips: Champagne (and other sparkling wines) should be served chilled, so refrigerate it two hours before serving. If necessary, you can speed-chill it in about 20 minutes by completely submerging the bottle in a bucket filled with a 50/50 split of ice and water.

To open the bottle, do the following:

  1. Remove the foil.
  2. Untwist the wire cage around the cork.
  3. Hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle, pointed away from any other people in the room.
  4. Keeping your fingers over the cork, gently rotate the bottle (but not the cork) with your other hand.
  5. When you feel the cork begin to loosen and move up, ease it gently from the bottle with your thumb. When properly done, you'll hear a soft "poof," not a loud "pop."Champagne should always be served in slender flutes, which allow far fewer bubbles to escape than wide-mouth glasses do. Make sure the flutes are free of soap film and dust, both of which can destroy the bubbles.

Saving tips: The best way to maintain the effervescence of leftover champagne is to use an inexpensive metal champagne stopper (available in wine stores and gourmet specialty shops). In lieu of that, drop a stainless-steel needle or pin into the bottle, then fasten a balloon over the top with a rubber band. Either method will keep the beverage bubbly for about two days.

Did you know: Has your champagne lost its sparkle? Revive it by dropping a raisin into the bottle.

Nutritional info: One 3.5 ounce glass of the bubbly will cost you about 70 calories. You'll also be imbibing 1.0 gram of protein and 5.0 milligrams of sodium―but no fiber, fat, or cholesterol.

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